Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Puzzlers in subject-verb agreement, subjunctive usage, pronoun usage

Most of the rules of English grammar and usage are clear and unequivocal, requiring only a basic understanding of syntax to apply correctly. But as many of us no doubt have experienced when putting our thoughts in writing, some sentence or phrasal constructions simply defy the hard-and-fast application of those rules. By some quirk of word positioning or unintended correlation, they puzzle or unknowingly trip even the English-savvy. This happens quite often in matters of subject-verb agreement, pronoun usage, and subjunctive usage, as we can see in the following essay that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times in late 2010 in reply to three perplexing grammar questions raised by Forum members. (February 7, 2012)

Three perplexing questions about English grammar

Some time ago, three Forum members asked me one grammar question apiece that they had found perplexing. Many of you must have puzzled over similar questions yourself sometime, so I thought of sharing with you my answers to them.

This one’s from Forum member lv:

Is the statement “A sentence is a group of words that expresses a complete thought” correct?
Isn’t it that the antecedent of the relative pronoun “that” is “words”? The antecedent is plural, so the verb in the subordinate clause should be “express.” Am I right?

Here’s my reply to lv:

I’m afraid you didn’t get it right, lv. From the grammatical standpoint, the correct antecedent of the subordinate clause “that expresses a complete thought” is the singular noun phrase “group of words”; this is the reason why “expresses,” the operative verb in that subordinate clause, is in the singular form. Also, from a notional standpoint, what “expresses a complete thought” isn’t just “a word” or just “any group of words,” but “a sentence” specifically, so the subject being modified by the subordinate clause “that expresses a complete thought” could only be the group of words that’s known as “a sentence.” Both grammatically and notionally, therefore, the operative verb in that sentence should be the singular form “expresses.”

Determining the correct antecedent noun in sentence constructions of this kind is admittedly tricky. It’s very tempting to assume that the noun nearest to the operative verb is the antecedent noun, but this isn’t the only criterion in establishing subject-verb agreement; we need to verify if that assumption is borne out by the semantics and logic of the sentence. In this particular case, it is semantically and logically clear that the antecedent noun—the subject that’s being modified by the subordinate clause—could only be the singular noun “sentence.”

This second question is from Forum member royljc:

I’m having problem explaining “be it” or “be that” in precise English phrases. I’m listing three sentences for your reference. Please help.
1. “Be it an alien icon, a football icon, a dog icon, we’ve got hundreds of smiley options for you to use.”

2. “Two, a lot of information, be it technical or otherwise, is not available in digital form and may never be available, only in hard copy.”
3. “Macroeconomics is a branch of economics that deals with the performance, structure, behavior and decision-making of the entire economy, be that a national, regional, or the global economy.”

Here’s my reply to royljc:

In the sentences you presented, the verb phrase “be it” is actually the subjunctive form of “whether it is,” and the verb phrase “be that” the subjunctive form of “whether that is.” (Here, the subjunctive mood expresses contingent outcomes as opposed to expressing certainties, which is what the indicative mood does.) The difference between “be it” and “be that” is simply that in the former, the speaker is referring to things or objects generally, while in the latter, the speaker is pointing to specific things or objects in a more familiar way (using “that” as a pointing adjective).

And here, from Forum member KMXer, is the third question:

Help please! Which is correct? “I am a fan of hers” or “I am a fan of her’s”?

My reply to KMXer:

The correct female possessive pronoun in such sentence constructions is “hers,” which means “that which belongs to her,” so the grammatically correct sentence is “I am a fan of hers.” “Her” when used without a following noun is equivalent in meaning to the adjective “her.” The form “her’s” is not a valid possessive pronoun form in English. Forming the possessive by affixing apostrophe-s is done only on nouns, as in “Alfred’s,” “man’s fate,” and “the cat’s paw.” (November 26, 2010)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, November 26, 2010 issue © 2010 by The Manila Times. All rights reserved.